EL SEGUNDO When the NHL schedule was released last July, it was hard not to notice that the Sharks and Kings would end their regular seasons against one another with a home-and-home series.
It was fairly easy to predict those games would be meaningful, too, as the parity in the NHL seems to become more and more prevalent every year, and San Jose and Los Angeles were the odds-on favorites in the Pacific Division after meeting in the first round last April.
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Kings defenseman Drew Doughty made a mental note early in regards to these final two.
I think even in the first game this year, we all knew we had San Jose back-to-back at the end of the year, Doughty said on Wednesday from the Kings practice facility. We didnt want it to come down to these last two games like its going to, but we knew it would be two big games. I think thats why the NHL sets it up like that, because these two games mean a lot. Its going to make these games a lot of fun to play in, and to watch.
Neither the Sharks nor the Kings have clinched a playoff spot just yet. Los Angeles needs one point while San Jose needs two, although that could change by game time on Thursday when they meet at Staples Center. Ninth place Dallas will likely be wrapping up its game in Nashville just as the Sharks and Kings drop the puck.
In other words, the Kings could have a spot clinched already as fans in the Staples Center are still settling into their seats.
Either way, the Kings would love try and prematurely end San Joses season, as unlikely as that is now after the Sharks won two straight over the Stars. The Pacific Division title is still up for grabs, too, so the Kings should be motivated regardless of what the Stars do against the Predators.
Doughty said: We definitely want to do whatever we can to knock them out of the playoff picture. We want third place, and thats what were going to play for. These two games mean a lot, not only for third place but just being able to push a team like that out of the playoffs is a big momentum boost for us.
We dont have that point yet, Jonathan Quick said. We have to prepare for tomorrow and get ready to get two points. We cant be satisfied with just getting one point and getting in, we want to keep moving up. We want to win the division, and get that home ice.
It hasnt been smooth sailing for either team this season. The Sharks' struggles have been well documented here, while the Kings were forced to fire head coach Terry Murray in December and were mired in last place in the NHL in goals-per-game for much of the season (theyre now in 29th with 2.26, but have averaged more than three per game since the NHL trade deadline at the end of February).
Thats all in the past, now, though. In fact, those trials and tribulations could end up making the Kings more dangerous in the postseason, according to Jarret Stoll.
Weve gained a lot of experience and character, and went through a lot if we do happen to play well these next two games and get to the playoffs, Stoll said. Its been a long road. It hasnt been an easy one; its been a bumpy one for a lot of us in here. Firing a coach, having a new one come in here, thats never fun and never positive, and it wasnt.
That just shows the character of the group we have in here. We all care about each other, we all care about this team a lot, and we all know that we have a very, very good team.
Just like San Jose, the fact that playoff hockey has started early for the Kings as they battle to remain in the top eight could have a positive impact.
Or not, said Justin Williams.
I think it probably has its advantages and disadvantages, Williams said. You obviously want to play well going into playoffs, but its also nice to know a couple weeks before if youre going to be in or have a first seed to rest players and get them healthy.
The most important thing is playing well going into playoffs. We need to continue to do that.
Odds and ends: Kings coach Darryl Sutter said that winger Jeff Carter will miss the game Thursday with a reported ankle injury. Defenseman Slava Voynov did not skate, but will play against the Sharks. Los Angeles skated for a little more than an hour on Wednesday.